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Silicon Photonic Chips: Pioneering Breakthrough in Open RAN Tech

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A network operator, Vodafone, along with Salience Labs and iPronics, is progressing the field of open radio access networks (open RAN) via an innovative approach. They are investigating the potential of silicon photonic chips for open RAN at an R&D centre located in Malaga, Spain.

Joining the consortium are two startups, UK-based Salience Labs and Valencia-based iPronics. They are collaborating with Vodafone and other vendors to develop a chip architecture that might bolster open RAN. The partners are specifically examining the latest silicon photonics and their potential impact on these networks.

What sets silicon photonic chips apart is their light-based nature. This property is projected to help these chips outperform conventional electronic semiconductors in terms of speed. At the research centre, Vodafone’s engineers are delving into how these chips can be utilised in the company’s mobile base stations. It is anticipated that silicon photonics may contribute to achieving ultra-low latency and heightened network programability, all while consuming less energy, as explained by Vodafone in a recent announcement.

In a precedent-setting discovery last year, researchers from the University of Oxford found that photonic chips can perform up to 300 times faster than their electronic counterparts. More than that, these chips are likely to fulfil the ever-increasing requirements for elevated data transfer rates, superior processing power, and more extensive bandwidth application. “Their integration would support the massive advances in computation seen in new technologies like generative AI, cyber security (including quantum computing), and autonomous vehicles, to name but a few” announced Vodafone.

Vodafone also indicated the need for a ground-breaking change to scale up 5G features. An increase in processing power directly correlates to the implementation of new 5G features at the mobile base station. Instances of this demand are network slicing, where dedicated and speedy connections are allocated on demand to specific entities like businesses, hospitals, or schools.

Interestingly, silicon photonics have already been introduced in data centres and commercialised to some extent. With these advancements, the next step seems to be chip manufacturing. The focus on cost reduction will be noteworthy, especially as the research is centred around open RAN technology, which is often associated with debates around lowering operator costs.

Looking at the bigger picture, the global silicon photonics industry expanded to $1.28 billion in 2022, according to the market research firm Grand View Research. It is predicted to grow at a robust compound annual growth rate of 26% from 2023 to 2030. In some other market assessments, the estimated market size and expansion rates were even higher. The developments in this space are intriguing, and the upcoming innovations in silicon photonics will be eagerly awaited.

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